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Understanding a meat label

A grocery case full of packaged meat of different types, mostly bologna or sausage.

Meat sold in a retail case at your local grocery store can be labeled with attributes such as local, dry aged, and natural, for example. These products provide more choices to consumers but they also add a greater complexity of options that require skill to decipher. So, what is required on a meat label?

Required meat label information

1. Product name:

The product name must accurately define the product in the package and use the USDA-Food Safety Inspection Service (USDA-FSIS) approved definitions.

2. Official inspection legend including the establishment number:

The official inspection legend will include an establishment number that is unique to both federal and state processing facilities. 

3. Address line
 

4. Net weight or quantity:

The net weight or quantity might not be included if the meat is measured at a butcher or retail counter.

5. Ingredient statement:

The ingredient statement lists elements in the order included in the final product.  

  • If 2 percent of an ingredient is included, it can be listed as "contains less than 2 percent of . . ."

  • Generic terms such as "Spices" or "Seasonings" are allowable to protect proprietary recipes.  

  • If allergens are included in the product, they must be listed. 

    • The major 8 are: wheat, shellfish, eggs, fish, peanuts, milk, tree nuts and soy.  

  • Nutritional information is included for raw products with multiple ingredients and cooked products.  

  • Safe handling instructions are required for raw or partially cooked products requiring cooking steps but can be excluded on fully cooked or ready-to-eat products.

What else is on a label?

You'll often see marketing information on a meat label. This additional information is optional and meat producers must avoid providing false or misleading information. Making a false claim can have serious consequences for producers and even lead to criminal prosecution.

Who oversees marketing information?

  • The USDA-FSIS regulates products containing 2 percent or more cooked meat and 3 percent or more raw meat.  

  • The Food and Drug Administration regulates meat flavored sauces and soups and products containing less than 2 percent meat.  

  • The USDA-Agricultural Marketing Service (USDA-AMS) provides grading (USDA Choice), certification (USDA Certified Tender), and verification (USDA Process Verified).  

How is marketing approved on a label?

Meat producers must provide documentation that prove their marketing claims to USDA-FSIS labeling and program delivery staff (LPDS). The LPDS evaluates labels, publishes guidance and verifies claims. Find more information about labeling on the USDA site

USDA inspectors can approve labels such as dry aged, kosher, oven roasted and 100% pure, for example, onsite.  

Other labels, such as "natural," breed claims, AMS verification programs and certified claims, are special claims that require producers to develop and submit a label sketch to the LPDS office in Washington D.C.

Claims that require oversight and special approval by USDA-FSIS LPDS:

  • Animal raising claims: raised without antibiotics, raised without hormones, etc.

  • Living condition claims: free range, pasture raised, etc.

  • Animal diet claims: grass fed, grain fed, vegetarian fed, etc.  

The owner of the product must provide a definition, verify compliance and provide transparency of the information through a definition listed or a website link provided on the label. 

Claims about how animals are raised are often described by a statement with an asterisk on the label. This information must be provided in the label sketch submission for these specialty claims.  For frequently used animal raising claims and certified claim definitions, visit USDA-AMS auditing and accreditation.

Reviewed in 2020

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